Coalition talks

Dispute over symbolic title of ‘deputy PM’ stalls coalition deal

Sara Netanyahu reportedly vetoes deputy prime minister roles for Bennett and Lapid; Jewish Home team fails to show up for talks with Likud negotiator

Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara host rabbis and scholars at their home for a Bible study session in October 2013. (Marc Israel Sellem/Flash90)
Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara host rabbis and scholars at their home for a Bible study session in October 2013. (Marc Israel Sellem/Flash90)

A last-minute glitch delayed final completion of coalition negotiations on Thursday, with the prime minister’s wife reportedly at its center. Still, most insiders remained confident that a deal would be done, and the new government sworn-in next Monday.

According to Army Radio, Sara Netanyahu demanded that Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett — with whom she reportedly fell out when he served as her husband’s chief of staff from 2006-08 — not be given the largely symbolic title of deputy prime minister in the new government, and that the same title also therefore be denied to fellow putative coalition partner Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid.

Moshe Leon, a Likud negotiator, said it was the prime minister’s decision that “nobody” would be given the title. Sources in Yesh Atid and Jewish Home, however, said the title had been promised to their party leaders, and then unilaterally withdrawn.

David Shimron, the Likud’s chief negotiator, said he waited for Jewish Home negotiators to meet with him from lunchtime on Thursday to finalize the coalition terms, but they didn’t turn up “and they’re not answering the phone.” Shimron waited for them all afternoon at his law office, and then went home.

Shimron said it was “ugly spin” to claim that Sara Netanyahu was responsible for the “ridiculous” argument over the “deputy prime minister” designations, and was sure “Mrs. Netanyahu has nothing to do with this.”

Sources close to Bennett and Lapid were reported saying that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a unilateral last-minute power play, had withdrawn his agreement to the promised deputy prime minister titles for the pair. And Army Radio said its sources “in Likud” confirmed that Sara Netanyahu was at the root of the dispute.

The last-minute argument appeared particularly marginal since the title “deputy prime minister” does not signify that its holder fills in for the prime minister when he is abroad or incapacitated. In fact, Likud officials said Thursday, the government would have to choose a stand-in PM as and when necessary, and he or she would come from the main party of government.

The prime minister himself, however, sounded unconcerned by the eleventh-hour complications, telling a meeting of the joint Likud-Beytenu faction in the Knesset a little before 2 p.m. that the “final details” were being polished on Israel’s new government, and that it would be well capable of meeting the security, diplomatic and economic challenges facing the country. The coalition, he told his party colleagues, was the “best” arrangement he was able to make in the wake of the Knesset’s complex composition following January 22’s elections.

Six weeks of coalition talks had drawn toward a successful conclusion Wednesday evening, when the Likud finally conceded the Education Ministry to Yesh Atid’s Lapid, and Lapid reportedly accepted the other terms of Likud’s compromise offer.

“This government will be good for Israel,” Bennett said Wednesday night.

The necessary legal documents were to be drawn up and signed Thursday, leaving Netanyahu free to formally inform President Shimon Peres on Saturday night — the final day of the six weeks allocated to him — that he has mustered a Knesset majority. The coalition will comprise four parties: Likud-Beytenu (31 seats), Yesh Atid (19), Jewish Home (12) and Hatnua (6), for a total of 68 members in the 120-seat Knesset.

The outgoing government is set to hold a final meeting on Sunday, and the new government will be sworn in Monday — some 48 hours before the scheduled arrival of Barack Obama on his first presidential visit.

In return for having his No. 2, Rabbi Shai Piron, appointed education minister, Lapid agreed to give up on some of his other demands, including control of the Interior Ministry, his opposition to Hatnua having two ministers, and his objection to the Likud gaining an extra deputy minister, Channel 2 reported.

Gideon Sa’ar, Likud’s serving education minister, only learned that he would likely be losing his job from the TV reports.

Along with Piron at education, Lapid himself is set to serve as finance minister, and Yesh Atid will likely have three other ministers in a cabinet of 21-22 members. Bennett will be minister of economics and trade, and his Jewish Home party will have two more ministers, one of whom is likely to be Uri Ariel at Housing.

Bennett reportedly told Lapid that if he didn’t accept Netanyahu’s compromise offer, Jewish Home would sign a coalition deal without Yesh Atid.

Netanyahu will hold the Foreign Ministry, to hand over to former foreign minister Liberman should he beat the fraud and breach of trust charges that forced his resignation in December. Likud’s former IDF chief of General Staff Moshe Ya’alon is set to succeed Ehud Barak as minister of defense. Likud-Beytenu will hold 11 ministries in all.

Tzipi Livni, who signed a coalition deal with Netanyahu last month, is to serve as justice minister, with her Hatnua party colleague Amir Peretz at environmental affairs.

There will be seven or eight deputy ministers, one of them, from Likud, at education.

Bennett, ending talks Wednesday afternoon with Lapid, had said he was confident that the two parties would yet resolve their differences with Netanyahu’s Likud-Beytenu and form a coalition. “There’ll be a government. I’m optimistic,” Bennett said, before heading off for further consultations with Likud representatives.

Bennett, who emerged as the mediator between Netanyahu and Lapid in the final days of the coalition countdown, was speaking hours after Netanyahu issued an ultimatum to Lapid: either sign a deal to join the coalition, or the Likud will start negotiating with the ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism.

“If there is no breakthrough in coalition negotiations with Yair Lapid in the next few hours, and he doesn’t back down from his excessive demands, the prime minister will initiate talks with the Haredi parties,” a senior Likud official said Wednesday morning.

It was not clear how potent the Likud threat was, since even with both ultra-Orthodox parties on his side, Netanyahu could not muster a Knesset majority without Bennett. And Bennett had been resolute that he would not join a coalition without Lapid.

Moreover, the ultra-Orthodox parties, having been spurned by Netanyahu in the past few weeks of talks, would likely not have allied with him cheaply, and would not easily accept the idea of mandatory national service for their young males — a demand that has been emphatically advanced by Lapid and Bennett, and that has wide public support.

Likud-Beytenu, Yesh Atid and Jewish Home agreed to shrink the Cabinet to 21 ministers plus the prime minister, down from 30 in the last government. The issue had been a central demand of the Yesh Atid party, which had wanted a cap of 18 ministers.

They also reportedly agreed to raise the threshold for Knesset representation from 2% to 4% from the next elections, a move that could dramatically reduce the number of parties making it into parliament.

The reduction in the size of the Cabinet marks a significant achievement for Lapid, who argued that a lean government would set the right example for Israel as it faces budget cuts in a challenging economic environment.

The smaller cabinet will complicate Netanyahu’s difficulties within his own Likud, where too many outgoing ministers and rising political players are competing for too few cabinet seats. Danny Danon and Tzipi Hotovely, two younger politicians who did well in the Likud party primaries, have been publicly advancing their own claims, but are seen as unlikely to make it into the cabinet. And there may simply not be enough jobs for all outgoing Likud ministers such as Silvan Shalom, Yisrael Katz, Gilad Erdan, Yuval Steinitz and Limor Livnat.

Media reports Wednesday evening suggested bitter internal fighting in the Likud over the relative paucity of the party’s ministerial options. Netanyahu and Liberman met with the Likud-Beytenu faction in the Knesset on Thursday.

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